What do we want our landscape to look like?

This blog is about pine martens. Well actually, that’s not true: it’s about prejudice and ignorance. Strong words perhaps, but fair I feel. It started with a recent post on Facebook. The post showed an image of a pine marten – quite a nice image as it happens – and this is (word for word) one of the responses:

“I would see it in hell. Nothing is safe from it.”

Pine marten (Martes martes) portrait, Ardnamurchan, Scotland.

Really? Is it possible for a cat-sized weasel to be guilty of such heinous crimes that it deserves to be committed to the bowels of the Earth for eternity? Yes pine martens sometimes eat capercaillie and black grouse; some will take domestic chickens and pheasants given the chance, but golden eagles, goshawks and even wildcats also predate gamebirds. Are these to be judged and condemned by the same poisoned criteria that befalls this (protected and recovering) omnivore?

“Nothing is safe from it”.

What exactly is meant by ‘nothing’? A squirrel perhaps? Fair enough, martens sometimes eat squirrels. A lamb? (as was suggested in the same post) A live lamb? I’d like to see evidence of that in the same way that I’d like to see evidence of sea eagles snatching babies from prams.

As you might gather I’m not a huge fan of such ill-founded sweeping generalisations and I’ve heard lots more beyond this particular post. I accept that not everyone likes pine martens. I accept that as a predator they eat things that we might prefer don’t get eaten but come on, martens aren’t evil monsters, they’re just martens doing what they need to do to survive. And by the way, if we can’t accommodate an overgrown stoat in our midst in the 21st century, then we really haven’t come very far.

Here’s my theory: People who hate martens don’t actually hate the animal itself; they hate what it stands for. Over the last few decades, conservationists have championed the cause of martens and other predators and historically, this is something that many land managers have never had to encounter. Moreover, the law now protects predators that many consider to be unworthy of protection. And so pine martens (and beavers, sea eagles and pretty much any other recovering species) represent change and more significantly, it’s change perceived to be brought about by left-wing, bunny-hugging academic urbanites who know nothing of the ways of the country. It is then perhaps the change itself, the change that pine martens symbolise, that is resented along with those who have catalysed that change.

There’s a very real question smouldering under the fire between conservationists and traditional land managers (excuse the crude and over-simplified tribe titles: I’m generalising myself now) and it’s this: What do we want our landscape to look like?

For some, the British landscape has been raped and pillaged for too long and is in need of restoration – more forest, more pine martens, more Nature. Such a notion flies in the face of a traditional, utilitarian, even religious view, which sees the land as a commodity to be managed and exploited for the benefit of just one species. Us.

What do we want our landscape to look like?

The answer to this question is key and relies on fundamental belief systems that actually have very little to do with pine martens.


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15 thoughts on “What do we want our landscape to look like?

  1. Good point Pete; well balanced and reasoned.

    Sadly many of those commenting on social media sites etc. seem to respond with a knee jerk reaction before engaging their brain and would struggle to prosecute their case in any reasoned debate. For the most part Nature manages to maintain its balance very well without the interference of man. Many would argue that we are actually the bigger problem!

  2. This is a very fair point, and so is Richard’s. The vast moorlands that people associate with Scotland are NOT our natural landscape. They are as carefully maintained and farmed as lowland farmland, and with considerably less benefit to the wider community. Left to their own devices, many of the grouse moors would be wooded over in fifty years, and the natural ecosystem would – to a certain extent – be restoring itself. With the exception of several of the larger species that we have systematically wiped out.

    Part of a naturally balanced ecosystem is that the predator-prey equation finds its own level. By insisting that a single species of prey animal should exist with a greater biomass than would be otherwise viable, landowners are creating an artificially unbalanced ecosystem , and turning species like grouse and pheasant into a target species given the lack of available alternatives. Is it any surprise that predators attempt to do their job? Demonising them has little effect but to galvanise peoples opinions one way or the other.

  3. An interesting point indeed – and one I’ve had similar experience of recently, but with another species……the otter. We’ve been lucky enough over the last couple of years to have a family of otters make use of our local river system. They are regularly seen in a number of local gravel pits going about their daily business. The nonsense that has gone on and the rubbish spouted by what I’ll politely call “the less informed” has been amazing.
    We have local fisherman, who much like the Pine Marten comments would happily see “all otters burn in hell, as they decimate the local fish stocks!” However, the Grey Heron, Cormorants and Great Crested Grebe, who also dine out on the river are fine……go figure!

    I had a very interesting conversation with an elderly lady a few months back whilst out photographing, regarding the otters. She enquired as to what I was photographing and when told it was water voles, she replied, “Oh I fear for them, now that those damned otters are here.” Just for sport, I asked if there were any other species here she’d rather see go?
    “No, not really, I like most other things.”
    “What about the herons, do you like them?”
    “Oh yes, I love watching the herons flying over or sitting on the fishing platforms.”
    I couldn’t help it, I just had to tell her…………..”Do you know they’ll eat your precious water voles, given the chance? In fact I’ve got photos of them doing just that!”
    She walked away looking horrified…….but a little wiser perhaps.

    The underlying issues to me, seem to be twofold:
    – ignorance is bliss, in the first instance.
    – and it’s all ok, providing it doesn’t affect what “I” want to do.

  4. We have a large pond in our garden that moorhens nest on and usually manage to rear 3 or 4 broods in the course of a year (they steal chicken food whenever they can so they live well) and we also have a stoat that visits that attempts to keep their numbers in balance. Its is a fascinating battle every year and my life is the better for seeing in fought out every day. I wouldn’t dream of interfering.

    But so many other aspects of my ecosystem are messed around with by my local land management enthusiasts it is difficult to know where to begin – the fox and badger populations have to be controlled because there are too many, then of course the rabbits need culling as there are too many of those too (I wonder whether there is any connection). And of course everything has to be sprayed to death in the fields next door to keep pests at bay. Our visitors are always shocked at the strength of the bird song which floods the garden at almost all times of day, and strangely there seem to be so few of those pests in our little wild corner.

    Perhaps the bigger surprise to me was spending a month out in Uganda last year in a very heavily environmentally degraded village in the north, and realising just how much more abundant the insect life was in just the scrub than we would see in our local patch. While I realise there are a wider range of species in the tropics this felt more than that – the absence of the agrochemical industry seemed to make a big difference. I fear we have become blind to the poisoning of our environment, to the loss of diversity and wildness. Most of us have no true idea of what our local patch should look like, and each year it gets a little bit less good, a little bit more degraded, and we don’t notice it slipping away.

    But what to do about it? Speaking for myself I’m probably guilty of growing my hedges higher and enjoying my own corner as best I can, as I don’t yet feel like there is any way of influencing those who need to be influenced in a meaningful way.

      1. Actually as I get older, that’s the bit I get less and less convinced by. I see small battles won while the war is lost. If that sounds too gloomy, well you didn’t have to teach 10Q3 period 6 today!

  5. Quiet interesting discussion… I would like to add some things to the devil martens… Having done a lot of bibliography for a restauration plan (yes yes, in France where we have a “pest” list on which marten is written, one area wish to protect them!), I admit I was quiet surprised by the quantity of red squirrels eaten…I hardly found a mention of it! This is really my personal point a view, but maybe a marten chasing a squirrel is a striking moment, and maybe it has been remembered as something cruel terrible and as a common food habit? Apparently, martens ate very very occasionally red squirrels… Moreover, here is a publication to read : “Population crash in an invasive species following the recovery of a native predator: the case of the American grey squirrel and the European pine marten in Ireland”. Grey squirrels are easier to catch, bigger so represent more food than red squirrels, so where pine martens come back, the predation on grey squirrels seem to benefit to red squirrels, less suffering from competition..
    Some people (even gardners, farmers) seem to like “their” pine martens! Given what is written in the previous comments, it seems not to be the case everywhere in England but I hope martens likers are more numerous than marten haters… I hope the same for the so called unloved animals (herons, otters…).
    They are a part of the local biodiversity and deserve to live (by the way, no animal should “deserve” to live, the question should not even be raised) and if there were no marten, no stone, no squirrel, no otter, how long would we want to live in such a country…and how long will the human species be able to live?

  6. Once the spiral of human intervention has affected a resource, be it a historic ruin or an entire ecosystem, conservation/restoration requires planned reduction not simple cessation of human involvement..or even more but different management towards a desired end.
    Undoing the damage will exacerbate some existing problems along the way, as the overall harm is undone, and may well cause new or previously not obvious impacts to come to the fore. I wouldn’t be surprised if different imbalances between species was one of them, and that, sadly, is the cost to the environment (not to the humans who were the cause of the problems) of humans undoing years/millennia of human exploitation based on the principle of maximum gain for least cost.
    How do I want the landscape to look?
    As a leftist, bunny-hugging, retired-from-government landscape archaeologist, I have a lifelong love of the complexities of landscape….although, as Pete has pointed out to me, some inconsistencies in my logic and my attitude to various creatures (I do not want grey squirrels in my garden!). My belief is that landscapes are habitats and habitats are landscape and we can’t have one without the other, so bring on the pine martens even if they eat other furry and feathery critturs, because the more we let traditional preying continue or re-establish itself, the more the role of each member of the food chain is likely to strengthen, so the habitats strengthen and maybe the countryside won’t be so obviously a human product.
    By the way – I think martens are lovely, and would appreciate more images, since the chances of me meeting one on its home ground, are not great!

  7. Read an interesting entry in the sightings book at RSPB Udale bay today. Listed lapwing, curlew and a few others then went on to say that the writer once saw these birds on their farm before crows, buzzards and pine martens killed them all. I wonder what impact modern farming methods have on nesting birds?

    Word on the street here on The Black Isle is that martens just kill for fun. They raid hen houses and kill everything but take nothing. I’ve also heard talk of martens killing litters of fluffy kittens and anything else that gets in their way.

  8. When you ask “what do we want our landscape to look like?” my heart sinks. The human race has been altering the British countryside for as long as it has been standing on two legs and it is no longer the wild place it once was and can never be for as long as humans continue to manage it. I would love too see the landscape as it was before mankind got its dirty mitts on it but I feel that this can never be as it thinks it has a God given right to do what it pleases with it.

    The poor old pine marten is just another casualty and is another animal that was on the verge of extinction in Britain, is making a comeback and is now seen as a pest once again.But does the human race see itself as the problem, oh no! It puts lots of tasty chickens in the countryside and complains bitterly when a pine marten helps itself. It’s like opening a fast food restaurant and leaving it unattended and then wonder why the food keeps vanishing. Unless mankind can learn to live with nature instead of trying to change it to suit its needs then I do not hold out any hope for it. I find it so ironic that whilst we are the most intelligent species on the planet it is that very intelligence that is destroying it and on such a spectacular scale. My attitudes have hardened now and I have had to accept that mankind is always going to affect its environment and by doing so upsets nature as we see it. As Anne stated it would be very difficult to undo many of the environmental changes and could have an even worse affect by trying to reverse them ans as you say Peter there are fundamental beliefs that are deeply embedded in the psyche which allows mankind to alter and destroy the land with a seemingly clear conscience!

    1. Hi Nick

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      That ‘conscience’ word is very interesting. What if we could influence societal conscience? I believe we can.

      1. When I think of societal conscience I think of the native red Indians. It didn’t really do much for them except give them some money which was a poor reward for taking their land and pretty much destroying their culture. Apologies for seeming pessimistic Peter but our record of societal conscience is not good. Unfortunately our intelligence is tempered with our seven deadly sins, greed being one of the most prolific. You only have to look at China and their environmental record all for the sake of making lots of Yen. And how on earth are we going to change a nation that takes powdered rhinoceros horn as an Aphrodisiac in the 21st century!

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